Sitting on a lead seldom the ticket to win

Try though they did, neither Minnesota nor Jacksonville could squeeze into the glass cleats.

Both of those Cinderella hopefuls were shown the door in last Sunday’s NFL conference championship games — the Vikings getting drummed by Philadelphia 38-7 and Jacksonville blowing a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in its 24-20 loss to New England.

For the vanquished, a playoff loss is all she wrote regardless of the final score. Vikings fans had a great time for about a quarter, but their coordinated, half-jumping jack enactments faded away faster than you could say, “Skol!” The Minneapolis Miracle, which was to foreshadow the Vikings’ first Super Bowl appearance in 41 years, was nice while it lasted.

As painful as that blowout loss was, though, the Jaguars’ defeat was more gutting because the AFC title was theirs for the taking.

Just two years removed from a 3-13 season, Jacksonville outplayed the Patriots for three quarters but was undone by penalties and a conservative approach that ceded the momentum to host New England. Jacksonville committed untimely penalties and down the stretch played like a team trying to not lose.

As for those penalties, Jags fans were quick to note the disparity: New England was whistled for one infraction for 10 yards, while Jacksonville committed six penalties for 98 yards, including an iffy pass interference that set up the Patriots’ first touchdown.

As long as the Patriots keep winning there will be skeptical musings on that order. The biggest takeaway from the two games played last Sunday was the contrast in how the Eagles and Jaguars played with a lead.

Philadelphia was ahead 21-7 when it took possession on its own 20-yard line with 0:29 left in the half. Three completed passes later, the Eagles were kicking a field goal that upped their lead to 17, and after taking the second-half kickoff and marching for another touchdown they waved bye-bye.

Jacksonville, leading New England 14-10, had the ball on its own 25 with 0:55 left in the half, and took a knee on successive plays to run out the clock. The Jags opted to not attack with almost a full minute left.

One team with a lead went for the jugular, and the other team with a lead curled up into a ball and hoped for the best.

So, no long-shot Super Bowl this time for Jacksonville, though the Jaguars’ meteoric rise gives hope to have-nots across the league.

Regardless of how one regards the Patriots and their quarterback Tom Brady, New England’s capacity to survive in big games is admirable. The Pats are making a habit out of come-from-behind playoff wins.

It will be interesting to see how Brady and Co. will fare against Philadelphia — the best defense the Patriots will have faced this season. It was the Eagles, and not the vaunted Vikings, who stuffed the run, got after the quarterback and controlled the line of scrimmage.

Philadelphia had been given little to no chance of surviving in the playoffs when its starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, went out with an injury in Week 14. Insiders and odds-makers weren’t bowled over by Wentz’s backup, former starter Nick Foles — despite Foles’ having thrown a record-tying seven touchdown passes in a game four years ago.

Few would have projected Foles as the best story of the playoffs to this point, but in the blowout over Minnesota he threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns, which along with the 38 points scored were all season-highs against the Vikings.

Philadelphia, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, is the underdog going into the Super Bowl, as they were going into the wild card round against Atlanta, and last week against the Vikings.

Should the Eagles manage to upend the Patriots, they could have a quarterback controversy of their own next season. There is a precedent for such a scenario.

Foles is aiming to become the first backup QB to lead his team to a Super Bowl win in 16 years. The last time that was done was by the quarterback he will be up against.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@wolfrivermedia.com.